Last Monday I gave you the opportunity to send in a question or two for literary agent Steven Malk of Writers House and quite a few of you did. Thank you so much for participating! As promised, here are his excellent answers.
It states on the Submission page to include in your query letter your credentials. What if this is the first book I've ever written and have no "credentials?"
Rest assured that it’s absolutely fine if you’ve never been published before. I’ve worked with new writers throughout my career and it’s something I greatly enjoy. However, keep in mind that credentials don’t pertain solely to books that you’ve published. Perhaps you’ve published short stories, magazine articles, maintained a blog, or done other types of writing. Or you could be connected to the writing community in other ways, such as working at a bookstore, attending writers conferences, or just having a lifelong love of reading. Those all count as credentials in my book, and they’d certainly be worth noting in your query.
Is your old associate Lindsay Davis still involved in agenting or in the publishing world in general? Does she plan on coming back?
What are you looking for now and not getting?
Lindsay is no longer working in publishing. She’s living in England and spending lots of time with her husband and new son. She’s still reading as much as ever, but I don’t think she has plans to come back to the publishing business at this time.
In terms of your second question, I feel very fortunate to have received some great submissions lately, so I haven’t given as much thought to what I’m not seeing, especially since my general philosophy is always that I don’t look for specific things, but rather strong, original voices that I haven’t read before, whatever genre they may fall under. That said, one thing I’ve noticed is that I’m seeing quite a few submissions that seem derivative of books or genres that are popular at the moment, which isn’t as interesting to me. If anything, I’d much rather find the next Munro Leaf, Ruth Krauss, Beverly Clearly, or Judy Blume; I’m always in search of people who have an appreciation for the classics and are able to identify what was so special about those books, and bring that same quality to their own work, but in a way that’s completely their own and feels unique to them.
Timothy Jason Wallis asks:
You've said you like a "strong voice." There are many different interpretations of what a "voice" is in the industry. Could you please expand on the definition of a "strong voice?"
Twilight brought much success to the protagonist First Person narrative. What are your thoughts on novels that change the First Person perspective to different characters and the traditional Third Person narrative?
Yes, a strong voice is and always has been the most important thing to me, and I think the same thing goes for publishers. It can be a hard thing to define. Technically, I would say that it has to do with having a strong and consistent command over your narration in a way that makes it feel authentic, but, beyond that, I think it has to do with your work feeling fresh, unique, and singular. I know something has a strong voice when I’m reading it and I truly feel that I’ve never come across this voice before. I can still remember reading THE CATCHER IN THE RYE for the first time and thinking that Holden’s voice felt real and immediate to me.
It’s hard to comment on first person vs third person. I think they both have a lot of advantages and I can certainly think of many books written each way that I’ve enjoyed. In terms of shifting perspectives throughout a book, I think it can be very effective, but it really needs to be done skillfully. If it’s not, it can be disorienting. So, I think an author has their work cut out for them when they do this, but, if it works, it can be brilliant.
Lee Wind asks:
Many writers write for multiple age categories: ie., MG, YA, PB. And also sometimes different genres (like NF and Fiction) in the same age category. If he debuts an author with, say, a MG fiction, would he want to wait and follow that up with a certain number of other MG fiction books before trying to sell his client's work in another category or genre to better "brand" the author, or would he rather go with whatever the next great thing the writer has that he thinks could sell?
I’ve been fortunate to represent writers who’ve published successfully across different genres. I think Cynthia Rylant is a great example of this. It’s really something that has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. I truly believe that writers need to follow their heart in terms of what they should be working on, so if someone has written middle-grade fiction and they’re compelled to write a picture book next, I would support them in that. I do think you always want to be looking at the big picture when making these sorts of decisions and you want to be mindful of the importance of building momentum. Essentially, it’s fine to publish across different genres as long as you’re truly weighing all the pros and cons of changing genres, making an educated decision, and that there really is a larger plan at work.
Carolyn Flower asks:
What books meant the most to you during your childhood and why?
I could spend a long time answering this question. It’s one of my favorite topics! FLAT STANLEY by Jeff Brown meant a lot to me as a kid, because I just loved the sense of imagination, and Tomi Ungerer’s illustrations in the edition I had were an endless source of humor and inspiration to me. I’LL FIX ANTHONY by Judith Viorst was (and is) a favorite because it’s about a younger brother trying to deal with his older brother (Anthony), and I really do have an older brother named Anthony! Beyond that, I couldn’t read it without laughing and Viorst is truly a master in the way that she tells stories (as a side note, Lane Smith just illustrated a new book by her called LULU AND THE BRONTASAURUS that will be published later this year, and it was truly a highlight of my career to be tangentially involved with Mrs. Viorst). Here are some other books that meant an awful lot to me and still inspire me:
• Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
• Matilda by Roald Dahl (and just about anything else he wrote)
• The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
• The Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series by Betty MacDonald
• The Great Brain series by John Fitzgerald
• Emma by Barbara Cooney (and anything else she ever did)
• The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak
• The Frog & Toad series by Arnold Lobel
• The Nate the Great series by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat
• Bill Peet: An Autobiography by Bill Peet
• Doctor De Soto by William Steig
And many, many more!
Natalie Aguirre asks:
Does he represent fantasy and if so, what types of fantasy is he interested in?
I do represent fantasy, but it’s hard to specify a certain kind of fantasy that I’m most interested in. As with other genres, I’m just looking for a strong voice and well-developed characters. I will say that for fantasy, world-building can be crucial, so it’s something that I keep my eye on very closely.
Laurie Lam asks:
Do you have a story about "the one that got away"?
I really don’t, and I’ll explain why. Although this may sound a bit hokey (or maybe it fits right in with me being from California!), I try to be very philosophical about this business and I really do believe that books end up with certain agents for a reason. I’ve been lucky enough to represent some very successful books in my career, and I like to think that my passion for them and understanding of how they needed to be positioned or where they would be best placed had some small role in their path to success. Similarly, if I pass on a book, and it goes on to be successful with another agent, while it seems natural to regret the decision, it really means that it just wasn’t right for me for whatever reason, and if I didn’t have the right vision for it from the beginning, I likely wouldn’t have done the best job for it, and the author really was better suited for the agent who took it on and championed it.
Leona Broberg asks:
My question for Mr. Malk is, upon reading a manuscript does he immediately know if something is right for him, or does he have to mull it over?
I do have very strong instincts and generally have a strong gut feeling about whether something is working, but it’s not black or white, in the sense that things aren’t either clicking on all cylinders or not at all. There are often cases where I’ll see something in a manuscript that’s really appealing but it needs work or shaping, so often I need to ponder those longer to decide how best to proceed.
I'd actually like to know whether Mr. Malk is into young adult fantasy/paranormal and if so what kind of fantasy/paranormal stories he likes or would like to see more of. Does he like stuff that's high fantasy like Eragon or Twilight-y paranormal romance? Is he into vampires/werewolves/fairies/ghosts or would he like to see something different than that? Gritty or whimsical, etc.
I do enjoy some paranormal novels, but, unfortunately, I just can’t put specific parameters around exactly what I’m looking for, in the sense that I can appreciate just about anything if it’s executed in a smart, thoughtful way, so I hate to limit myself. I enjoy both male and female protagonists and can honestly say that I don’t have any preference there.
When reading a query, how do you decide whether to ask for a partial (or more) or flat out reject it?
I tend to trust my instincts and I usually know very quickly from a query whether it’s something that seems like it could be right for me or not. Also, I really do appreciate a thoughtful, professional query. It’s nice to see that someone has clearly done their homework and can explain their work in a clear, concise way and demonstrate an understanding of where their book fits into the market. It’s also helpful to know why someone has chosen to query me, and that I’m not just one of many agents getting the exact same letter. At the end of the day, the work will speak for itself, but your chances of getting a request (from just about any agent, I would say) will be exponentially higher if you do those things.
Kristi Helvig asks:
Due to a variety of factors, the responsibility of publicity is falling more and more to the author. Aside from building an online presence, do you have any other marketing suggestions for aspiring authors?
I think that’s true. One thing not to underestimate is the importance of getting to know your local independent bookstore. Shop at the store consistently over time, introduce yourself, and get to know the staff. Although I’m sure the staff at the store will be friendly if you walk in with your book to show them, it’ll be even better if you’ve been supporting the store as a customer over time. It’s always nice to have a home base like this where you can do a launch event. In general, building from your community can be very helpful. Once you have a release date, see if there’s a local paper that might consider doing a story on you, or any local organizations you can speak to. Speaking at school and libraries is always an excellent idea, as well. I know this all sounds a bit old-fashioned, but it really does work.
Sharon Roat asks:
You represent some of the top writers/illustrators whose books appeal to middle grade boys (John Scieszka, Lane Smith, Adam Rex). My 10-yr-old son is a big reader, and loves them (I do too). What do you see on the YA shelves that will keep boys reading, and what would you like to see more of from YA authors?
Thank you. The notion of making sure that boys keep reading is something that’s very important to me. I did want to take this opportunity to say that Jon Scieszka recently relaunched www.guysread.com and Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins will be publishing the first volume in the Guys Read Library, “Funny Business,” this Fall. It features original short stories from Adam Rex, Mac Barnett, Jack Gantos, Christopher Paul Curtis, Jeff Kinney, Kate DiCamillo, and others. Here’ a trailer:
All of the people mentioned above write great material for boys. In terms of true YA (as opposed to older middle grade), Adam Rex’s new novel, FAT VAMPIRE, is fantastic, but it’s certainly on the older side of YA. I do think there’s some great YA stuff out there for boys, and some recent ones that come to mind are MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD, LEVIATHAN, THE ARRIVAL, and THE BOOK THIEF.
Again, it’s hard to nail down exactly what I’m looking for in this genre, but I will say that I do always love humor.
When it comes to YA, paranormal is so popular. Are editors still interested in mainstream YA, or in other words, projects with no paranormal elements?
Paranormal is indeed very popular, but I absolutely think that publishers are still as interested as ever in mainstream YA, and there have been big recent successes that weren’t paranormal.
Katharina Gerlach asks:
Is it a problem if the author does not live in the US, GB or Down Under (especially if (s)he lives in a country where English is not the first language)?
I don’t think this is necessarily a problem. It’s always good to be available to come to the US to meet with your publisher at some point, but living in a foreign country certainly isn’t prohibitive. My client, Yoko Tanaka, currently lives in Thailand.
How do you think the addition of an interactive component for ebooks will modify the writing and publishing process? Do you think that evolution will be confined mainly in the younger genres?
This is certainly an issue that we’re all watching very carefully. The landscape is changing and it can be a bit unsettling on one level, as it’s such unchartered territory. On the other hand, I don’t think new technology is something to be scared of – it can be used in interesting ways to work with words and pictures. I’m always going to be partial to good old-fashioned books, personally, but I think it’s important to remain open minded on this front. Publishers are all experimenting with these new formats, and I think it’s hard to say exactly how it will shake out, but I do think it’s here to stay. I actually think picture books will be the final frontier and the last to cross over, but I think you’ll start seeing more and more middle-grade and young adult ebooks that have some sort of enhanced feature.
You sign a client when you are excited about a project. What happens when the next project they submit to you is something you don't feel you can get behind? Do you work with client to mold the project into something more enticing or is client on their own with that one?
If that happens, I’m honest with my client and I’ll express my feelings about what isn’t working for me. One way or another – through revision, discussion, or both – we’ll reach a resolution, but it’s an open dialogue. I do think it’s more important than ever for writers to be strategic about what they put out there, and you really do want to always be raising the bar on yourself to always put our your best work.
Ruth Donnelly asks:
Steven, from your impressive client list, I see that you represent some well-known chapter book series authors (Cynthia Rylant, Sara Pennypacker...) Can you talk about querying a single chapter book vs. a series? The common wisdom is to query one book at a time; does that also hold true for chapter books, or would an agent or editor want to see ideas/outlines for subsequent books? I'd also love to hear any other thoughts you have about the current chapter book market.
The chapter book is definitely something that needs to be considered on its own and the rules tend to be a bit different. Series really are essential, as you’ll rarely see single title chapter books unless they’re part of a larger program. The challenge is that this market is largely dominated by a few brand-name series, so single title books tend to get swallowed up on the shelf. You need to have a critical mass of books before you can really make a dent in this market, so if you’re proposing a chapter book, you’ll really want to have at least one book written, but also have ideas for at least 3 or 4 more books in the series. Because chapter books really do need to be launched as series, publishers are extremely selective, as the commitment is larger, so it’s a challenging market to break into. However, when something catches on, it tends to really work over a long period of time.
Mike P asks:
Now, if Steve or an another agent has read a novel they requested from a writer and passed on it it, would it be okay to requery the novel if it has been significantly revised with focus on said agent's feedback?
Hi Mike P,
If an agent has given you specific feedback, and you’ve revised the novel along those lines, I absolutely think it’s fine to requery. Just be sure to reference that in your letter.
Janet Johnson asks:
What do you read when you aren't working? Or is that ever?
I tend to read almost exclusively non-fiction when I’m reading for fun these days. I particularly enjoy biographies and really like reading about people I admire. I just finished reading an excellent book about Bill Walsh, the former football coach, called THE GENIUS by David Harris. I subsequently read Bill Walsh’s own book called THE SCORE TAKES CARE OF ITSELF. And I recently finished a fascinating book about the history of baseball cards called MINT CONDITION by Dave Jamieson. What can I say, I’m a sports fanatic.
Elizabeth Lynd asks:
So, a lot of yet-unpublished writers have a manuscript or two that's "under the bed," and some of those really need to stay there. Others, though, might be pretty good, just not good enough (yet). When an agent takes on a new client based on the current project, how likely is it that s/he looks at those older manuscripts and reps them as well? And what kind of help (varies from agent to agent, obviously) should a writer expect for these? Also, will the agent perhaps shop them with the new manuscript for a two- or three-book deal? And how common is all this--or is it more likely the old manuscripts pull a permanent Rumplestiltskin?
I think this really varies from agent to agent. My own philosophy is that its important to be as focused as possible, so I think you want to go out with your strongest project. If the other books have possibilities but aren’t ready, they can be worked on over time, but if they’re truly just not working for whatever reason, there’s no reason to force it. You really do want to take a very long view, and think about what’s ultimately going to serve you the best when you make these decisions.
What do you wish more writers understood about you as a literary agent?
One thing I’d love to emphasize is that although some of the things that I say when I’m turning down a manuscript may sound like clichés, such as the fact that this business is subjective and there’s someone else out there who will love this manuscript, they really are very true and things that I truly believe. There are so many examples of people who took a long time to find the right fit and received many rejections along the way, only to finally end up with just the right person and be very successful. As I’ve said in other interviews and speeches, it’s crucial to always look at the big picture and not rush yourself – that’s the biggest mistake a writer can make and it can truly derail a career. I understand that the process of seeking representation can feel like a roller coaster ride and test your will, but you really do deserve an agent who really connects with your work, and you shouldn’t ever settle for less.
Awesome answers, right? I love Steven's explanation of voice. Everyone, please take a moment to thank Steven in the comments. He answered way more questions than the average interview and gave us a healthy chunk of his time. Thanks Steven! You rock!